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What are some plausible reasons why an advanced, futuristic society would still have a sizable agricultural/rural component, and a significant rural population? This hypothetical civilization is significantly more technologically advanced than modern wealthy 21st century societies, and can presumably grow sufficient food via vertical farming, can grow artificial meat, etc. So why might there still be farming communities, hunting of wild animals, and a considerable rural, agrarian subculture (e.g., has regions that are culturally reminiscent of the American wild west or 19th century southern Italy) outside of the urban population centers?

One reason I thought of was mining; even an advanced society would need to mine natural resources, so a rural subculture could arise around the discovery and mining of natural resources in frontier regions. But interested in others. I'd prefer explanations not resort to some sort of religious Ludditism or Amish-esque opposition to modern technology. Thanks.

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    $\begingroup$ If I understand your question correctly, it would be better asked, "why would the agriculture of the future continue to use land-wasting techniques rather than rely solely on techniques that minimize geological footprint?" Everyone still needs to eat, so there obviously will be extensive agriculture. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 29, 2023 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH yeah -- going vertical is extremely expensive for ag, far more so than for just about any other land use out there short of a semiconductor fab(!!!) $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Jul 30, 2023 at 3:59
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    $\begingroup$ Also, a lot of the micronutrients and growing mediums for indoor farming come from out door farms. As expensive a indoor farming is in our world, it gets a lot worse when you eliminate any materials sourced from outdoor farms. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 31, 2023 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ One of the answers reminded me of Solaria, but I forgot which one it was. Could be relevant, anyway. $\endgroup$
    – GuiRitter
    Aug 2, 2023 at 15:22

22 Answers 22

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The Bucolic Ideal -- AKA they like it.

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Your aliens have advanced technology. They COULD do vertical farming and lab grown meat. They COULD live in busy big cities surrounded by loud, smelly strangers. But who in their right mind would want that?

The species is psychologically different from humans. They do not trust food that magically appears in the shop from an unknown source. They are psychologically set up to enjoy growing their own food. They hate big noisy smelly cities. They enjoy being outdoors surrounded by greenery and animals. They are naturally suspicious of strangers and abhor large crowds. They prefer to live spread out from each other in small family groups.

These people are not in principle opposed to technology. For example they still have factory farms to feed people who are in need. But these people in need seek to eventually get off welfare and get their own land to farm with their family.

For a real world example, humans tend not to be in principle opposed to artificial insemination of women, if that's what it takes for her to have a baby. But they typically try the natural route first. We are not in principle opposed to feeding people grey nutrition paste if necessary. But it's not the long-term goal.

I suggest the deeper cause is the species evolved from a less social species than humans' ancestors. Something larger and more solitary. Gorillas instead of monkeys.

The problem then becomes how did such an unsocial species develop civilization and advanced technology in the first place? I leave that as an exercise for the interested reader.

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  • $\begingroup$ There could be competition or the noble desire to produce the best produce, livestock, wine, beer, etc. Additionally, horizontal farming could have nutritional or aesthetic benefits compared ot other methods. $\endgroup$ Jul 30, 2023 at 1:33
  • $\begingroup$ @RockyRococo Maybe maybe maybe. . . . $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Jul 30, 2023 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ @RockyRococo we could expect of a "highly advanced society" that they're not trapped in competition anymore ;) $\endgroup$
    – imrok
    Jul 31, 2023 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ Dunno why you think they'd have to be alien to be like this. I'm not interested in eating vat-grown animal tumors myself. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jul 31, 2023 at 14:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Tim The question says "I'd prefer explanations not resort to some sort of religious Ludditism or Amish-esque opposition to modern technology." $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Aug 1, 2023 at 5:20
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Vertical farming isn't very efficient.

You need artificial lighting, a lot of technology to maintain the massive stacks, a lot of genetic engineering to keep your plants actually growing if they're not the standard ones that work well, need to not have glitches- it's an erratic process.

You can do it, but it's vastly cheaper to run a normal farm, especially with all the advances in genetic engineering and fertilizers.

Populations are low and stable, and energy isn't unlimited.

They don't have so many people that you need the vertical efficiency of farms because so many people have uploaded into virtual minds. Energy is also limited, with fusion and nuclear power needing enormous investments in resources to build.

As such, it remains vastly cheaper to just run a normal farm, with normal GM crops and normal robots to manage it.

People like it

As well as the economic maths, people just like it. People who really like urban life and modern high tech cities have a tendency to upload their minds. People left in the real world tend to prefer rural environments.

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Farms can be too small and too big

smaller farms are less resource efficient, larger farms fall prey to wealth concentration and higher environmental impact. both should be balanced. local produce has a lower impact than large scale vegetable farms for instance.

suburbs are horrible (environmentally, economically, ect) and not everyone wants to live in a city.

I personally like living a rural area, I can have my own woodshop and forge without disturbing my neighbors. people often want to spread out, and if they can afford to they will.

We raise animals for more than just meat

A huge variety of products are made from animals including many medical products that cannot be produced any other way. Vat wool is unlikely ot ever be a thing, sheep are just too efficient, timber is another good example. Also livestock can often be raised on land unsuitable for agriculture, vat meat needs agricultural land to supply raw material, so livestock will still make up a lot of animal production.

Artisanal or variety products are in high demand.

small scale farms can produce thing uneconomical on a large scale, camel milk for instance is low but not zero demand so small farms is all you have. heirloom crops are another example. then you have breeders, different farms breed for different things, controlled breeding is easier on smaller farms. Rare livestock breeds, genetic diversity, and better recycling all favor smaller farms. then you have pig farming which becomes more destructive the larger the individual farm is. you can't have large scale pig farming with low environmental impact unless you spread it out to many small farms.

Pleasure.

Lots of people have hobby farms, farming is enjoyable to many, so with more economic equality we should see more small farms not less.

Vertical farming is not a replacement for normal farming.

It is a way to turn unproductive land like cities into farm land. Dirt, rain, and sunlight is still far far more efficient use of resources.

rural can also mean land management.

managing bison herds or standing forest would also be considered rural. rural does not automatically equal growing corn and cattle. Also ecologically balanced farming needs closer management than large monofarming which again means more farmers.

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1. Horizontal farming and grazing cattle are cheap.

There's a school of thought that increasing technology leads to decreasing cost. That's true! But it's a generalization that leads to error. An improved tractor leads to more efficient farming (increasing the amount of food per-acre) — but the tractor consumes diesel fuel leading to pollution and while it allows for more robust farming, any modern farmer will tell you that the ruthless nature of economics is that it doesn't necessarily translate to an increase in wealth. Ignoring corporate farming, family farming is almost mandated to use the latest tech just to pay their bills due to the expectation of decreasing cost of food per mouth to feed.

But there's a limit to that. For example, some farms are part of a co-op and the co-op owns the combine used for harvest. It's trucked from farm to farm, because no one farm can spend that much money no matter how much more efficient the solution is.

Which is a long way to say that vertical farming (assuming we're trying to eke every ounce of geographic efficiency) requires construction, vertical water distribution, better management of sunlight (or provision of artificial light) and a lot of other expensive things. Why continue farming like your great-great-great-grandparents did? Because it's cheaper and there's nothing compelling you to invest in the latest tech.

2. Nothing else is demanding use of the land

Let's ignore environmental activism as we see it today. I think that effort is trying to figure out how to grow up just like the rest of humanity and so it's not an ideal comparison for what I'm about to say.

But if we assume (and believe me, I think this is a nearly unbelievable assumption) an ideal government run by calm, rational, conscientious people, then there will be an effort to preserve large swaths of geography for uses other than agriculture. Some will be parks of various varieties. Others nature preserves designed to protect natural ecosystems. Still others will be "open air" space between large, efficient, highly automated cities. In other words, in this wonderful utopian world there would be commonly-accepted pressure to preserve tons of open space.

Except that it's rare for people who read stories to relate to civilizations like that. We want those kinds of solutions, but we don't believe they can exist because they're nothing at all like the world we live in today or any aspect of our history. We've had brief blips that worked temporarily (e.g., The Farm), but deep down inside, we all know that we evolved in a competitive environment that will always be underscored by greed, ambition, and a host of other useful but occasionally detrimental behaviors.1

So why do people continue with traditional farming in your world? Because they can. Because there will be the homeless who squat on an acre to survive and families who can't afford the expensive solutions and governments who calculate national productivity in terms of acres in production and a host of other all-too-common social challenges that have always plagued us.

...Because technological development hasn't reduced land use yet and isn't expected to into the future.

3. Population control isn't as easy as you think

Oh, so many people on this Earth complain about the growing population and wonder what can be done about it. It shouldn't need to be said that the biological drive to produce offspring is whomping strong. We've tried everything from religious terror to national laws to guidance counseling to abortion — not necessarily under the banner of "population control," but that's the end result.2

But what has all these years of medical innovation, improved public health, bounteous food, and failed programs taught us? That the population will grow. It'll have its ups and downs, but it will always trend upwards. War can reduce population. Disease... affluence tends to reduce the desire for large families, too. But in the end, the number goes up.

And that means you need every scrap of arable land in production. Horizontal land still being farmed simply hasn't had the vertical farming structures installed yet. It'll happen. Think Asimov's planet Trantor, where every square inch of land (and a big chunk of ocean) has been covered over with buildings. It's just a matter of time, right? So until the government can get around to the correct subsidy to convert the Smith's farm to high-tech high-density agriculture, the cows still graze and the wheat's still planted "the old-fashioned way."

4. Forcing people to adopt technology doesn't always work

From a certain point of view, you haven't told us what "time" we're talking about. Are we early in the adoption of advanced agriculture? Somewhere in the middle? Late in the adoption phase where pretty much every acre that can be converted has been?

My workhorse vehicle is a 1992 Ford F-150. It's had the snot beaten out of it. I've dropped a tree on it (a painful story about classical physics). The door handles have been replaced with rebar because they kept breaking. My point? That 30-year-old vehicle still runs great even though it's nowhere near as fuel efficient or pollution-reducing as modern vehicles — so why spend the money to upgrade?

Back in 2013 the U.S. government decided to help the nation adopt LED technology by outlawing the manufacture and sale of 60-watt, 75-watt and 100-watt A19 incandescent light bulbs. Suddenly senior citizens on fixed incomes were forced to pay \$25 for a light bulb that once cost \$0.50.3 The argument that it would last for 20 years falls flat when you're talking to an 80-year-old person.

The second round of efforts to force the nation to use more efficient lighting occurred this year (2023). Ten years passed before step #2 for many reasons, but one of them is that it took time for the nation to grow accustomed to what was perceived as one whale of a bad idea.

My point with #4 is this: while the cost of LED lighting has gone down, it's still a long way away from $0.50-per-bulb and likely will never attain that value. A (hopefully unforeseen) consequence of forcing the adoption of new technology has been inflation. We might be saving in energy costs in the long run, but we're paying a higher price for the bulbs. In 2013 LED bulbs were advertised as lasting 25+ years. Today the average is 10-13 years. The economy is trying to make them as consumable (i.e. "throw away") as the old incandescent bulbs.

Consequences like that stop people from simply buying electric cars or putting solar panels and wind turbines on or near their homes and businesses. It stops people from buying the latest-and-greatest cell phones and computers (most people don't...).

And it'll stop farmers from simply paying the cost of installing expensive farm equipment. You'll have traditional farming because some people simply don't like change. Why pay for all the fancy doodads when what you're doing pays the bills just fine?

5. Is every nation on your world technologically and economically equal?

Finally, it's unlikely that your entire planet is homogeneous. Some countries or areas will be wealthier than others. Wealthy countries/areas can provide subsidies to help convert farms to the advanced techniques. Poorer countries/areas can't. It's not always possible for the wealthy areas to pay for the poor areas.4 Using Earth today as an example, there will be sizable chunks of land farmed using traditional techniques simply because those farms are in an area that can't afford the upgrade.

You'd be surprised how many worldbuilding questions depend on economics....


1People who think it's a good idea to rid humanity of, e.g., greed haven't through through the implications of that. Those strong characteristics that can lead to very real tragedy are the root characteristics that also lead to innovation, problem-solving, safety, and a lot of other beneficial consequences. It's nice to look back from our modern perch and proclaim that we could have done it another way — but the nasty truth is, we didn't and couldn't. Without fundamentally changing what it is to be human, our goal is to figure out how to train ourselves to not give in to the darker side of these characteristics. People don't relate to utopias because we've not shown a lot of progress in this regard.

2I'm really not trying to start an argument here. Specifically citing abortion, the issue is quite a bit more complex than simply life vs. women's rights and I believe the issue has been politicized by a lot of people and organizations — including those seeking population control.

3I'm simplifying for brevity and it's not completely fair. Halogen-based A19 bulbs were, at that time, still permissible so the price jump was really from \$0.50 to \$4.95. But I was there when those first people had to have the government's decision explained to them. The reactions reflected the \$0.50 to \$25 condition.

4If you don't believe this, look at how your nation, state, or province deals with "education equalization." This is your regional government's effort to take taxes in the wealthy portions of the region and use them to standardize public education throughout the region, including in the poorer areas. It's a desirable idea to ensure that everyone has access to the same quality education! It's also whomping difficult. It's probably true that 99% of the world's wealth is held by 1% of the world's population. What people don't get is that taking all that wealth from the 1% and spreading it out among the 99% doesn't significantly lift the 99%. And the challenges faced by "education equalization" goes a long way to prove it. Soapbox mode off.

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    $\begingroup$ actually it has taught us the population will grow until technology and society reaches a certain level of infant mortality, then it will shrink and stabilize at replacement. Population growth is at its strongest during the transition from high infant mortality to very low. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 29, 2023 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ that's the world as a whole, the whole world has not reach low infant mortality yet although we are a lot closer than many would suspect. right now countries with low infant mortality have negative population growth. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 29, 2023 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ 1. Did your data control for immigration, also China's healthcare is not that great comparatively. 2. I did not claim it was the only factor it is simply the single strongest predictor. gapminder.org/tools two other known factors are female literacy (not male literacy), and wealth distribution. If people are sure their offspring will be healthy and alive there is a an evolutionary advantage to having fewer offspring and investing more resources in each. birth rates are dropping globally in many countries it is below replacement. data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 30, 2023 at 0:17
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    $\begingroup$ Also the US has godaweful healthcare compared to most developed countries, it has a remarkably high infant mortality rate, the US is not a good standard. 50th places out of 195 countries for lowest infant mortality. that's between Uruguay and China. worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/… under current projections the global population should max out around 2080's at just over 10 billion. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 30, 2023 at 0:25
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    $\begingroup$ access to service is a huge part of quality of service on the scale of a country, medical care means nothing if the population cannot access it. Also replacement fertility is 2.3 globally, Negative would mean a single person somehow has a negative number of offspring, which makes no sense. note how many countries are below replacement. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 30, 2023 at 0:57
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Cities are expensive both in energy and economically. They exist because of excess population and because the surrounding agricultural population is supporting the city. What cities provide to agriculture are markets, ability to store food between harvests, a place to send extra people once they grow old enough, and new ideas.

Modern cities are incredibly expensive in terms of energy, water, food and dealing with waste. They need a sizable population in rural areas collecting all that, getting it transported into the city, and getting the waste out of the city. The city also needs unpopulated areas in the water collecting area to have clean water. See the Hetch Hetchy valley in California which supplies water to San Franscico or the Edwards Aquifer in Austin TX. They may also need to depopulate the land above a significant aquifer so that the farmers don't pump out all the water that the city might need. (See the issues with the Ogallala Aquifer where famers are pumping it dry.)

Waste is a huge problem for cities. See the Monte Testaceo in Rome which is a pile of broken amphora - essentially a big garbage dump of empty oil jars. Sewage is expensive but essential for public health. A city needs open space to use sunlight and plants to process wastewater. It needs a place to put broken pottery and other containers. A modern city creates a huge amount of waste, and it needs to be made non-toxic, recycle what can be recycled, and processed into something more useful. That is best done outside of the city. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_issues_in_Kolkata as much of the water is contaminated.

In the past, cities were prime locations for pandemics. People would flee the city during a pandemic and go out into the countryside. Being away from others is a great way to avoid getting sick. No matter how advanced a civilization is, there will always be new microbes that infect them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Cities are certainly energy intense. but per capita they are hard to beat for efficiency. economy of scale and all that. That being said many US cities have much lower efficiencies then they could have due to car centric layouts. $\endgroup$ Aug 1, 2023 at 0:44
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AI took all other jobs

There isn't anything else left to do for humans. AI's do all the software development, accounting, policing, lawmaking, building... You name it. Even porn is now all virtual people created dynamically, so not even that is available to humans.

If you stay in the city, you will probably live in a pod hotel. You barely fit in your pod and you share a latrine with a thousand people. Also the food is made of roach meat and is horrible. That's because The AI's are very efficient in resource allocation - meaning that 99.9999999999% of the resources go to the 100 or so people who own the AI's, and everybody else is forced to live on basic universal income and in spartan conditions. The only reason billionaires haven't got rid of everyone else is because they have a thing going on about what brands of pod hotel and roach meat have the most followers.

If you live in the fields you can hunt, raise, gather and grow your own food, which is better than roach meat. You have acres of wilderness as your own private restroom, and you can even build a decent toilet if you know how. And you can make your own straw mattress and wooden hut. All in all a more confortable existence than licking the boots of a corporste master for a pod.

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Transportation is cheap

And people like living in low density areas. In fact, the demand (in terms of availability) of rural living could easily outstrip the supply. Even today, city dwellers with means often have "cottages" or 2nd homes in the country.

Crafted Wilderness

While a sufficiently advanced society (near or above K1) doesn't have need for huge monoculture fields mass producing cheap calories, there will still be plenty of effort involved in turning the "countryside" into something enjoyable for humans.

People will raise animals for the fun of it, and will craft "hand-made" food from animals. Possibly it will be illegal to kill higher animals (mammals and birds) for food, while humane gathering of animal products (eggs, milk, honey, cotton) is permitted.

You could imagine breeding meat cattle to have their meat cloned and sold - "1st generation clone meat!" might be the equivalent of "organic" today. But even if you aren't eating cattle, "cowbow" mystique would keep some hobby farms running.

Groomed wilderness is common in some countries today. A mixture of carefully chosen and culled wild animals (anything that eats a human is killed, so they learn to not do that - and yes, that is what we do today), camp sites or cabins with low footprints, workers who resupply and fix damage, low-energy travel methods (hiking, canoeing, skiing, etc) to visit the wilderness camps is a common recreational activity in North America.

Even hiking trails -- paths you can go along with effort put to minimize damage to the environment, with reinforced "road beds" and requests to stay on the path -- are part of this. 10000 humans walking along a hiking trail do far less damage than 10000 humans wandering around willy-nilly.

Self Sustain hobbiests

People with a plot of land the rough equivalent of a garden in a city that grows food, but these also grow wheat and corn and the like. With automation, the work required isn't that high (for the human), making it a wealthy person's fancy. They'll have solar panels to recharge their drones and a maker station to do any repairs and "live off the grid" in an insanely high tech parody of life before the economic singularity.

Religious Practices

Today, there are a number of sects that avoid using technology above a certain point for their own comfort. Odds are such sects will continue to exist, and they'll feel the need to actually farm and the like. Their products may sell for a premium, giving them the income needed to justify holding the land in private hands.

Biodiversity

Instead of farming monoculture, we might have farms whose job it is to produce a wide variety of genotypes of crops. Farmers would be genetic workers whose purpose is to sample said genetics and study the produced phenotypes. Farming would be an early step in the funnel towards new biotech, with much of actual human consumption handled in clean and efficient vertical farms near the point of consumption.

Planets are Slums

Gravity is a drag. The kinetic energy cost of lifting goods from a planet, and the limited ability to return goods, makes economic trade with a planet inefficient. With cheap and plentiful orbital habitats and an entire solar system to disassemble for resources, planets are backwaters. The only people remaining on them are either insanely conservative or economically non-productive.

Reach orbit, and your standard of living skyrockets.

The planet is being hollowed out, and backwater parts of a backwater are left to do whatever they want. So long as you aren't playing with uranium, blocking transportation (in, out or over) or the like, rural areas are left to their own devices, with little government and technological support.

Those that don't want to go to space or live in the (relatively) less poor cities have cobbled together an economy in the rural stretches of the world. They are closer to subsidence farmers, misusing scavenged technology from the richer parts of society to keep their houses running and themselves in food. Viewed as barbarians, hicks and savages by the rest of society, they have formed their own systems of government that look a bit like a cyberpunk wild west.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Planets are Slums" <- a lot of good answers so far, but I feel like this one would make for the best story. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 31, 2023 at 14:10
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The question is how advanced. Land allocation is typically to the rich because they can afford to buy it. Rich people have lots of free time and have money to spare, key factors in doing what others might be considered frivolous.

Even in Star Trek, many comments have been made about home cooked food tasting better than what comes from a replicator. Captain Picard even owns a vineyard to manage in his free time, although it was passed down from many generations.

The obvious answer here is taste, people want taste and they will be willing to pay, trade, or etc for it.

Replicators make a good effort to reproduce food, but maybe its only a 99% match and that extra 1% is noticeable. This is because the last 1% is often the hardest to achieve and likely uses the most energy.

Also, a multi-planet civilization could have a whole planet bought by a group of rich people who want to farm. Either for fun, profit, or both.

Rich people would definitely pay extra for gourmet food even at great expense to show off there wealth.

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Why not? What else are they going to do?

Broadacre City was actually seriously proposed for human beings. You take advantage of your tech to let you move swiftly, and every family lives on its own farm and raises a good chunk of its own food. This enables them to live in harmony with nature and remember where their food comes from and let their children run wild, and if the children want friends it's easy enough for them to travel between farms (high tech!).

As such, it is not only a healthy living experience, it gives them something to do and adds meaning to their lives. They teach their children gravely about years of old where people had to engage in less fulfilling jobs.

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"Highly advanced" does not mean perfect, omniscient, omnipotent

Disclaimer: this depends very much on a non-mainstream (controversial) personal view. Adapt or discard as you see fit.

I am extrapolating from our current 21st century society and scientific knowledge. I argue that currently:

  1. We do not know everything there is to know regarding healthful nutrition. ("Can't know what you don't know.") Our quantitative and qualitative knowledge regarding necessary nutrients is decades-old in many cases; no new vitamins have been discovered for ages. Who knows what "co-factors" are helpful or harmful? We do know that most factory supplements are often badly utilized, and some supplements should not go together (e.g. fructose chelates zinc, iron etc.). Our nutrition guidelines often still center around something like "X calories per kg body mass per day" while modern processed foods often contain far less nutrients when compared to some raw, fresh vegetable produce or animal-origin food of exactly the same calorific content.
  2. A living, healthy organism (microbe, fungus, plant, animal etc.) is a complex biochemical "factory" where a plethora of biochemical and biophysical processes work together to produce the organism, containing all the necessary "ingredients for life". As higher (more complex) lifeforms consume lower (simpler) lifeforms, they absorb the necessary nutrients to build their own (healthy) organisms. If they are not healthy (as we often see in modern industrialized society) a good guess is that they don't get all the nutrients they need for some or other reason (unavailable, unacceptable quality, hindrance in uptake, etc.) (Other guesses e.g. exercise are certainly valid to some degree.)
  3. It seems there is often not enough incentive (financial or otherwise) to research further. The "low-hanging fruit" have all been picked and the science is seen as "good enough" by the current society. And where there are obvious failures - why, the medical establishment makes good money out of treating the symptoms (instead of curing or even preventing them). One prominent exception might be the focus that our gut microbiome has received in recent years - which incidentally is decimated with many of our processed foods and other chemicals.
  4. The food industry (the forerunner of the complete food supply of a hypothetical future society) churns out "good enough" processed foodstuffs, makes money, provides jobs, and keeps the people functioning for some decades. No need to optimize for health or avoid eventual adverse effects, that would just (no pun intended) eat into profits.
  5. Analogous to this, agriculture also often thinks that providing a plant with some salts (hydroponics) and/or artificial nitrogen (fertilizers) is sufficient to grow healthy plants season after season, while people now start to realize that plant grow in symbiosis with a lot of micro-organism life inside the soil. Plants are still slightly more complex lifeforms than the microbes, which in turn are more complex than the minerals...

What they actually may be thinking

So with this rant-ish motivation behind us, I can imagine that a future advanced society may think along one of the following lines re. rearing food in an old-fashioned way:

  • Cautious view: We have run enough double-blind trials on our population (ethics to be left as an exercise) to conclude that our manufactured food is sub-optimal compared to traditional farmed food. We have no idea why but the statistics are clear. So out of an abundance of caution and concern for our people we delegate the task of food production to the experts. (This would also optimistically suggest society has got rid of the "bread and circuses" mentality that is all too often encountered today - companies and governments in future actually care about peoples' welfare on an individual and collective level.)
  • Futurist view: We actually are advanced enough to have cracked all the secrets of nutrition and can even be sure that we know everything there is to know - but the cost to include all those features in the final product is just too prohibitive compared to farming (which, incidentally has become even cheaper due to economies of scale as demand has increased due to the publication of the research, maybe even some nostalgia).
  • Pessimist view: After the Great Lifestyle Pandemic of the early 21st century, the survivors did not trust the Big Food Corporations any more plant your own food became the fashion - starting from some potted cabbages and tomato plants on balconies, to eventually a drive where having a farm, bartering produce, or selling it to city folks became prestigious. To the point that all those corps went out of business and all that food-processing knowledge was lost.

PS: It might not be abundantly clear from the above that today's farming is a wide term and encompasses both bad practices (raping the earth for what is to be made out of it then leaving a toxic barren wasteland behind) and good practices (e.g. nurturing the subsoil life and increasing the soil's fertility and carbon capturing capacity year after year). For the above points to be valid, I would like farming as referred to here to tend towards the "good" definition. Which I think is reasonable, as climate change and carbon sequestration may in future tend to drive agriculture back to a more harmonious/holistic approach.

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Same reason we still have farming and even hunter gatherer communities today. They haven't all been forcibly removed and made to live in the cities yet. Or they're not politically controlled by the city people.

The other potential is people returning to the land. That happens these days as well where sucessful people get out of the concrete jungle and buy themselves a farm. It's documented as far back as Roman times when retiring to grow cabbages was a 'thing'.

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They discovered that long exposure modern technology and culture is psychologically harmful to them.

Warning: minor comment of self-harm

Their development was similar to humans in that people concentrated in cities and fewer and fewer people in the agricultural community until it all automated. However with the technological and scientific development they came to understand their place in the universe and developed a strong nihilistic undercurrent in their cultures. This lead to fewer births and a higher rates of suicide.

The aliens collectively decided that they didn't want to change their psychology to be more resistant to this problem as they felt that would be killing their species. Instead they decided to experiment with villages modeled on their historic past, among other things, and found it helped with the problems their species was suffering. Given the population decline that happened, it turned out that they could engage in preventative measures where most people would live in a village and cycle in to the technological cities regularly. Given their advanced medical and teaching technologies they could still retain experts even with this cyclic approach to life. Modern technology is still used behind the scenes in villages, e.g. modern medicine is administered, automated supply chains are set up to provide back up in case of a bad harvest and provide variation in people's diets. Travel between villages can be achieved by underground systems and an internet is accessible but carefully watched for anyone accessing it in a village to preserve the health benefits of these retreats. This has lead to a psychologically healthy race and they retain this system to keep themselves healthy and help give themselves purpose to counter the nihilism that developed due to their technological experience. While most people cycle between the city and village, there are some that live only in cities or only in villages due to their particular psychological make-up.

PS: as a side note, technological ascendancy tending to lead to nihilism is one proposed solution to the Fermi paradox

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This question assumes that vertical farming is inevitably more efficient than extensive agriculture. That's obviously not currently true, and for major commodities is likely never going to be true.

We currently grow about 780 million metric tons of grain on Earth, all of it outdoors, on more than 500 million hectares of land. The infrastructure required to do that indoors would be monumental.

500 million hectares is 5 million km2, which is roughly 50% more than the entire area of the earth currently occupied by cities. You wouldn't need the same area for vertical farming of course, since in theory it is more space-efficient. But even if it were 10x more compact, that's still 500,000 km2 of buildings to maintain.

I expect we'll see more vertical farming in the future, but it's unlikely it will ever be the only form, or even the dominant form, of agriculture.

https://www.statista.com/topics/1668/wheat/#topicOverview
https://www.newgeography.com/content/001689-how-much-world-covered-cities

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  • $\begingroup$ Hey, welcome to Worldbuilding Stack Exchange! I think this would be better off as a comment (or a pair of comments, if more characters are needed). $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Aug 1, 2023 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ I don't disagree. It started as a comment, and then it became a little unwieldy. I was hoping there was enough content that addressed the issue that it would be ok if it wasn't a direct answer. $\endgroup$
    – Tyler
    Aug 1, 2023 at 14:45
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How’s it different from humans today?

Many people chose to live in the countryside, far away from cities. Even if it means long commutes which emit a ton of emissions, cost a lot and waste a lot of resources.

We produce far more food than we actually need. Most people in developed countries are overweight and we waste a ton of food to feed animals which is very inefficient.

The simple answer is that people like to live in the countryside and they like food (and especially meat, and real meat at that).

We could probably optimize our land usage and agriculture by an order of magnitude if we wanted to.

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As I think experience is finally starting to play out, even if it's not popular. Manufactured and/or engineered and/or modified food is not healthy. Bottom line is that life needs to eat life. Ok sure there are some bacteria that live off of matter, but the higher the life form, the more complex the life they need to eat. There is a reason why we don't eat algae and rocks. We as a higher life form need a more complex source of nutrition than manufacturing can ever provide. Even the difference between eating an apple and eating apple sauce is immense. Or eating real meat compared to this new dangfangled plant meat. They are nothing alike, even if they seem it.

I don't think advanced life can ever give up agriculture, the more biologically advanced the species, the more biologically advanced the food needs to be in order to provide everything the body needs.

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Because they can. They were smart enough to limit their population. They can all enjoy growing their own food or buying from organic farms. Other types of produce are only for those who are less fortunate. It is not much different in our society either. For instance, we seek to buy open ranch eggs, chickens, village cheese over mass produced stuff. Though since the demand is larger than supply those options are often more expensive and certainly will not be enough for everyone even if it was cheap enough.

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You can do some research on India.

India stands as a contrast in our modern world. For a whole variety of reasons, India still has a disproportionate share (70%) of their workforce in agriculture. And there is heavy resistance when the government tries to liberalize the markets, which would induce less people to work in agriculture. Its a complex topic but maybe India's reasons would help you in your story.

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Decentralized and organic civilization. Imagine that the computers are organic. You grow them. Imagine that almost all necessities are organic and sustainable, with a minimum of heavy metals and other toxins. Imagine (as did Larry Niven) sunflowers that were like solar power plants. You also grow building materials that are stronger than wood and less flammable. You even can grow furniture that comes out near its final shape, so you don't need complex carpentry skills. Then for communication, there are vines that can carry signals and grow for thousands of miles. If almost all technology was organic, then everyone would be a farmer.

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The farmers are exiled from the cities

The farmers have, for some reason, been thrown out of the cities and are not allowed to do any trading with city folk except when explicitly permitted. Hence, the farmers only have access to whatever tech they can make, steal, or buy off the black market.

Why? Well, here's a few quite plot-impacting possibilities (excluding the religious/Amish possibilities):

  1. They are opposed to the government in some way, and as such, are thrown out.
  2. They are all criminals and thus not allowed to live with the city folk; however, the civilization is perhaps opposed to imprisonment and death penalties? Or maybe the prisons are over-crowded? Or maybe some crimes are just punished with exile.
  3. They have a disease that the cities cannot tolerate.
  4. They have defective genes in the eyes of the cities' governments, but genocide is going too far for the governments, so they are just exiled and expected to either die off or evolve. Why not just gene modification? Because maybe they (the cities' and/or the farmers) are against it, or maybe they still haven't mastered it in a way that doesn't cause... ahem... unforeseen consequences.

There are countless possibilities!

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    $\begingroup$ It is an "age old practice" to throw people out of society where nature and bandits can easily kill them. The society didn't kill them but set them up to be killed. This is why towns had/have laws dictating that certain people shouldn't be in town after sundown (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sundown_town). That is why farmers band together for protection and insurance. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Aug 1, 2023 at 14:18
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Even with the option to simply grow food artificially, I am doubtful that these methods will be as efficient as conventional agriculture any time soon (others already talked about vertical farming). A lot of people also prefer natural products over "lab-grown" ones. That leads me to the following options to address your question:

Harsh environmental conditions

Your planet might be extremely ill-suited for growing food, requiring extensive effort for plants to grow & livestock to survive. Mongolia for example still has a large rural population due to the low amount of fertile areas, making herding hardy livestock & a nomadic lifestyle the only way to use the land unable to grow anything but grass (although globalism is making Mongolia outsource much of its food production from other countries in our world).

The harder it is to produce food, the more people need to do it & the less cities can be fed, leading to a largely rural population.

Reasons for that can be anywhere from low CO2 amounts to extreme climates or a toxic environment.

Low population density & global specialization

If you only need a specific nation to be largely rural or there is interstellar trade in your universe, you might want to consider specialization as an option.

Due to globalism in the modern world, different nations fulfill different economic needs for the global market, tied to what these countries do best, based around environmental & societal factors. If your society has a lot of fertile land without a large population, food production is a very good option as an export product, relying on other societies with a different economic focus for some goods in exchange.

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environmental protection

It's a bit similar to biodiversity already mentioned in another answer, however I'd go beyond it.

Long term intensive agriculture and abuse of nature has destroyed the balance of the ecosystem.
The activity called extensive agriculture is actually supporting the environment finding its balance again. The main activities are actually not production but increasing biodiversity, getting rid of invasive species, re-introducing endemic species, controlling populations ...

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A species/society that prefers to kill things themselves

Consider a species that is primarily or entirely carnivorous, to the point that they prefer their meat to not only be freshly killed, but they like to kill it themselves. Of course, they don't have any ethical qualms about this - no vegetarians here. But they do get great pleasure from the killing and preparing of the food as well as just eating it, so restaurants or prepared foods from a market are not going to cut it. They also prefer active prey, not just cattle corralled in stockyards.

So no matter how advanced the tech, they're still going to base their communities around ready access free-ranging prey animals, and they'll need to devote some energy to maintaining these green spaces (after all, they don't necessarily want to spend all day hunting down animals in actual wilderness). So, no cities like we imagine.

A society prevented from utilizing electricity/electronics

Consider a world that is under the effects of something like a permanent electromagnetic pulse, natural (?) or perhaps artificially created by a conquering species (opposed to genocide) that wanted to keep them from ever advancing sufficiently to leave the planet.

Their mechanical tech would never progress beyond the steam (or diesel) engine phase, but their biological tech could progress quite far, to the point where most of what we accomplish through sophisticated machines they would accomplish via genetically engineered lifeforms that were purpose-built & controlled. "Manufacturing centers" may take the form of sophisticated "farms" that produced specialized bio-machines, each farm geared around the production/husbandry of a particular organism.

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